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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

People Watch People Watching : New work from Streetwise Opera

This is a review of the premiere of Streetwise Opera’s People Watch

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 July

This is a review of the premiere of Streetwise Opera*’s People Watch, which opened Tête à Tête / The Opera Festival at The Place Theatre, King’s Cross, on Tuesday 21 July 2015 at 7.00 p.m.

The mise-en-scène was we, looking at them, looking at us. Beneath a banner that was to be lit differently for a different theme (and most clearly visible in the image that is embedded in the Tweet at the foot of the review), we had The Ligeti Quartet (@LigetiQuartet), dressed as black cats** and on a dais, with sideboard and dresser, and the various performers as when we entered of Streetwise Opera (@StreetwiseOpera), ranged on sundry items of furniture across the stage before us.

Streetwise Opera’s voices and those of The Ligeti Quartet in an integrated ensemble

Photograph by, and by kind courtesy of, Claire Shovelton

Near the opening of Stef Conner’s (@StefConner's) score, we heard strokes in the cello against voices, which gave way to laughing, and for which cellist Val Welbanks provided an ostinato. Right at the start, director Timothy Burke had brought up the sound of the voices, which were talking quite naturally, but there was now a deliberately forced Hee-hee quality to the laughter as it developed, accompanied by hypnotic, circular writing.

After a short pause, a huge laugh (almost alarmingly so, and no longer seeking to be in rhythm with the quartet ?), overwhelmed us, and we became aware that singer Susannah Austin (@SusannahAustin), who had already been noticeable for being dressed in a silken dressing-gown, had stood. With an unfussy, clear voice, she performed against string-writing that seemed vestigial in sounds, the instruments began to pick up the character of her words, and of their cadences. She brought us the words Quiet, and Silent, and whoever she may have represented, there was a Slavonic feel to the instrumental sound :

Susannah Austin, who has risen from within the ensemble to sing

Photograph by, and by kind courtesy of, Claire Shovelton

As Austin sang We keep our peace, the quartet sounded set apart from the tenor of her voice, as a separate strand. She continued, rendering Our reaction is gentle, with an initial threefold repetition of ‘gentle’. As she continued to sing the word, we heard a sound as of keening, and, led by Richard Jones on viola, the quartet built up volume until the chorus joined in, their voices restful in the ensemble. Gentle, Austin urged when the tone became one of yearning, she reflected it, and sat down.

Interjection after the fact :
One is now reminded of the delightful moment of corporate calm, at the end of the filmed sequence in The Answer to Everything (#ATEOpera), where Elizabeth Watts (@LizWattsSoprano) has charmed troubled breasts with a lovely arrangement of Handel’s beautiful lascia ch’io pianga what, after all, Streetwise is all about bringing to people and their lives* ?

Familiar as The Chairman of the Board in #ATEOpera, Rob Gildon, as Gary, heralded a section that parodied t.v. advertisements, with Squirt The Dirt, which closed with a brief rodeo style of transitional theme, and a squeaky tremolo on viola. It was at this stage that we came to appreciate that this was not just one huge living-room, in some sort of group home, but that the central armchairs and sofas were a resource that allowed the cast to move around, and for other faces to come in and out of prominence and form new configurations. A tense, pulsing feel accompanied the realization that Children in Need was on the imaginary screen : Not that again ! came the reaction to the BBC’s big charity campaign.

The post-modern response to seeing natural history on t.v. :
booking a trip on one’s phone to go to see it ?

Photograph by, and by kind courtesy of, Claire Shovelton

The rodeo section recurred, and we were brought to confront the different attitudes about that dog ‘Look at him go !’ from Britain’s Got Talent, before positions switched back, with a tremolo from viola. From ridiculous admiration for the canine to the sublimity of exclaiming It’s so beautiful, and a hypnotic quality to the quartet-writing, with the viola appearing against short repetitive passages in the background it was as if material were in the act of emerging, as we listened.

Dressed for night, like some goddess of sleep, Susannah Austin stands again, and moves to those whom, now that there are spots on them, we notice (also dressed in white) in a group stage left (though there are individuals stage right [one is visible in the first image (above)], whom she later visits, with comfort). The chorus gives a wordless hum : the instruments have a ‘summery’ feel to them, but there are discords in the writing for first violin. Also, a sense as of keening, and with tremolos being played sul ponticello. Lyrical writing for violin is joined by cello, but with a ‘squeaky’ tremolo on viola, and then the quartet gives us bowed harmonic effects, up and down the fingerboard, as Austin sings, again, her soft encouragement.

Fellow singers in white from amongst the Streetwise Opera performers
Photograph by, and by kind courtesy of, Claire Shovelton

A riff is interjected by speech, then repeated, and the tone becomes ironic, and squeaky. The rodeo theme ushers all the voices in, and Austin sits again, before another switch over on stage, the quartet punctuating the vocal exchanges.

The musical mood has gone to melodrama, and, again different reactions to what is seen : It’s just so wrong !, objected one of three women in black, but no one will ultimately turn it off. The chorus sang Beautiful, but with tired undertones, which undercut the word***. The quartet tentatively, through cello and violin, stated material, before a short pizzicato section for the three women, and the re-emergence, after the rodeo phrase, of Gary with Squeaky Shine (which apparently had a testimonial for polishing pets ?).

All stood, to solemn playing, to which a ‘scratchy’ tremolo was added, and we noticed a red coloration to the banner, behind everyone, and with its six silhouetted heads. Not for the first time, a ‘sinking’ sensation, as there was a sliding move down the fingerboard. We heard the words Permanently confined to his home, but with ‘sour’ undertones, and the discord fed into the instrumental writing, as the gold stars on the banner became clearer.

We pick out where the quartet is attempting to establish a theme, as Austin sings Quiet, and the others reply Silent, her words initially on three notes (the first syllable split over a pair), and theirs, si lent, on a falling interval. It is a meditation, with a Sepphardic sound to it, and it turns into a paean, with a recursive sense of ensemble :

What we see, and as we listen, sung with full force, as the banner’s stars show brightly What we make of what we take in, with Austin singing Quiet into the midst of the emotions expressed.

To questioning tones from the quartet, lighting comes on full, and we hear the chorus singing open chords. The three more mobile members of the quartet stand, and silently hold their instruments, as if turned back into china cats. Almost in a round, the choir’s voice and Austin’s mesmerically follow each other, again and again.

When Timothy Burke brings the piece to a close, it is to much and buoyant acclamation, with several standing in the audience. Stef Conner and director / lyricist Bill Bankes-Jones (@billbj) were enthusiastically fêted, and it was all that the ushers could do, as everyone was being clapped off the stage, to try to encourage the audience to leave and make way for the next event in a busy opening night for Tête à Tête...

After-thought :

Though, as composer, the final word should go to Stef Conner :

Stef Conner (pictured with wordsmith, etc., Bill Bankes-Jones)

In its early days, opera entertained the masses and then somewhere along the line people started associating it with classical literature, etiquette, fine dining and posh gloves


* Streetwise Opera (@StreetwiseOpera) is an award-winning charity that uses music to help people who have experienced homelessness make positive changes in their lives. It runs weekly and termly music programmes in homeless centres and arts venues across England and Wales, and stages critically acclaimed opera productions.

** Fortunately, one checked with lead violinist Mandhira de Saram (still so dressed – and with what proved to have been vivid rims to her eyes, which had made placing her gaze as she played disconcerting), otherwise that would have read black mice : the concept was apparently that china cats come to life from time to time to comment.

*** Sometimes, as within depression (though that really seems like the wrong word for some people’s experience, which is more like suppression ?), we can know that something is glorious our family or friends, or the natural world – and that we should take joy in it, but we do not, and we cannot :

It is as if the body’s responses are suppressed (to protect it, and us, from engaging with a world beyond us ?). The knowledge, in one’s head, that something is wonderful or in which one should take pleasure (the nagging words of our own, and others’, criticism in the deepest of depression), does not connect with the feelings of the heart (itself under attack at knowing that it does not do as it ‘should’). We sense our confusion and our woundedness (yet even that only partly, not in full aliveness)...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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